Thousands of visitors will flock to the World Athletics Championships Oregon22 at the University of Oregon’s Hayward Field this July. For many, it may be their first experience visiting the Pacific Northwest, where forest fires and other factors can sometimes affect air quality.
How does the public view exposure to wildfire smoke? If air quality forces changes to planned events, how would visitors want to be informed of those changes? A team of UO researchers monitoring air quality at Hayward Field is launching a survey to find out, and their efforts will help championship organisers while improving our understanding of how to navigate outdoor events when air quality is poor for any reason.
The interdisciplinary team – made up of researchers from the Institute for Sustainable Environment, Center for Science Communication Research, and Institute for Policy Research and Engagement – developed the survey as baseline assessment for making outdoor events more resilient to the potential hazards, not only in Oregon but internationally. World Athletics is working with the UO to carefully monitor air quality at the event.
“Measuring the air quality impact of athletics events is an extremely interesting field of research that will allow us to ensure the long-term sustainability of our sport,” said World Athletics medical manager Paolo Emilio Adami.
Data-driven approach to planning
The survey, which is open to anyone who is planning to attend events at Hayward Field this summer, asks respondents about whether they would seek air quality information prior to attending an event, how they would like to receive information about air quality, whether such information would help them feel more prepared and other questions related to concerns and experiences with wildfire smoke.
“Broadly, what we’re doing with our efforts under [WCH Oregon22] is trying to improve individual- and community-level responses to dealing with wildfire smoke,” said Heidi Huber-Stearns, director of the Ecosystem Workforce Program at the UO’s Institute for a Sustainable Environment (ISE). “We’re trying to better prepare for the future, and the future is likely to contain wildfire smoke. We are learning how to improve communication with people before and during events so we can better align our resources and efforts.”
Hollie Smith, associate director for the Center for Science Communication Research, hopes this study will improve important communication processes during all types of hazard events.
“To effectively communicate with volunteers, attendees and community members, you have to get a baseline understanding of where people go for information, what they already know and how they want to receive information,” she said. “It is particularly important for events where so many people will be traveling in and have no familiarity with the communication channels in the area.”
Sensors complement survey results
Gauging public awareness is one of the ways the UO is collecting data about air quality and its impacts on human health. Sensors installed at Hayward Field not only detect wildfire smoke, but also other particulate matter, like pollen and pollution from vehicles and other sources.
Benjamin Clark, co-director of the UO’s Institute for Policy Research and Engagement, noted that “the monitors and data they produce can help people from around the state in all roles, from coaches, trainers, event planners and others to better understand the risks they might face when putting on an outdoor event.”
Through these efforts, the UO team and World Athletics are working together to collectively advance understanding in air quality preparation and planning.
“We are excited to work with the University of Oregon team on air quality, as their interest in wildfire integrates with our interest in air pollution,” Adami said. “We have never faced the situation of staging an event in an area where wildfires are common, so there is a lot to learn from their expertise. We are trying to set up a joint platform to share information on air pollution and pollen that could help us during [this summer’s event] but also provide the local community with further information through the device that we have installed at Hayward Field.”
Adami said the organisation is planning to install another device during the competition that will allow for air quality comparison in different parts of Eugene.
Transdisciplinary approaches to environmental change
There’s a convergence of scientific awareness of the harms of smoke pollution, and a growing awareness of respiratory-based health issues, said Mike Coughlan, a faculty research associate at ISE.
“It’s not a novel harm or hazard, but in terms of what the public is used to, it’s a novel idea to think that the smoke in the air is harmful,” Coughlan said. “This kind of work builds community and individual resilience toward a problem that is getting worse. We’re still at an early level of public understanding even though the science is clear that wildfire smoke is a serious public health issue.”
Coughlan and Huber-Stearns noted that while the air quality research is important for the sports events this summer, this work can be applied more broadly to understanding how communities, including universities, plan and work through unpredictable and difficult issues like natural hazards.
“The work of this interdisciplinary UO research team better positions the university to respond to air quality concerns not only to protect athletes and fans, but also to contribute to a growing body of research about the effects of wildfire,” said Cass Moseley, interim vice president for research and innovation. “This is another example of how the UO is a leader in creating new approaches to how we address environmental concerns as our climate changes.”
Kelley Christensen (Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation)